Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Nine ways to finish the writing you start

If you’ve ever had the habit of failing to finish what you start — particularly writing projects — let me suggest some ways to frame the process, so you have better odds of success:

  1. Examine your previous pattern of starting and stopping. Make a list of every past unfinished writing project you can remember. Write down why you started those projects, and when and why you stopped. Can you determine any common themes? Being aware of your habits will help you better arm yourself against them in the future.
  2. Differentiate between experiments and commitments. When researching this column, I discovered an intriguing proposal from blogger Scott Young. He suggests that we need to differentiate between tasks we really want to finish and those we are just experimenting with. For example, we don’t need to finish every book we start. Thus, starting a book can be viewed as an “experiment.” But there is also great merit in building the habit of being a “finisher.” The message of Young’s column: Be mindful about what you put in the “finishing” category. And if you put it there, do it.
  3. Count the full cost. Sometimes we don’t finish projects because we haven’t fully prepared ourselves for them. And, frequently, we bite off more than we can chew. If you are going to commit to a project, make sure you truly understand it first. Talk to others who have undertaken similar goals and learn what they discovered while doing it. Most of all, don’t let "stretch" goals turn you into a pretzel. Be ultra-realistic as you plan for your project. Even if you’re unhappy with the idea that it might take you 10 times longer than you want, isn’t it better to be aware of this timeline than surprised by (and disappointed by) it later?
  4. Don’t get stuck on the big picture. With a big project, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed about the size of it. That book you want to write needs to be 80,000 words. ACK! How can anyone ever write so many words? Don’t think about this right now. Instead, just get started.
  5. Set exceptionally small daily goals: I’ve noticed that many of my clients tend to overwhelm themselves with lofty, onerous goals — thinking that this strategy will help them become more accomplished. Instead, the reverse is true. The bigger the project, the smaller the goals need to be. I like what psychologist Martha Beck has to say about this idea: “To train an animal,” she writes, “you give high levels of reinforcement for very small moves. To train a killer whale to jump out of the water, you start by rewarding it just for coming to the surface. If it won’t come all the way to the surface, you reward it for advancing four or five feet.”
  6. Find the pleasure in the work. Work will always take longer than you expect. And if you focus on the endpoint, you’re likely to become tired and worn out. Instead, if you can remind yourself of WHY you’re doing this piece of writing and create some pleasure while you’re doing it, you’re going to be better equipped to deal with the inevitable frustrations of any large project.
  7. Track how you’re doing. Many people who don’t finish projects fail to do so because they have no accountability to anyone else. If you’re looking for accountability, my Get It Done program might be the right choice for you. Or, alternatively, you can also track your own writing. I call this a “secret sauce,” and you can learn how to use it here.
  8. Stop ruminating over the negatives. Sure, things will go wrong while you’re writing. That’s just the nature of the beast. But if you focus only on your failures, you’re going to hurt your own chances of finishing. Instead of obsessing over what’s gone wrong, focus on what’s gone right. Celebrate your successes — even the small ones. This will not only boost your creativity, but it will also improve your odds of finishing. (I suggest you generate a daily list of one to three things you’re happy with about your project.)
  9. Change the story you tell about yourself. Do you tend to describe yourself as a slacker or a procrastinator or a perfectionist? Stop it! Those kinds of labels are not only not helping you, they’re also explicitly hurting. By attaching a negative label to yourself, you’re increasing the odds of it being true. Instead, tell yourself that you’re diligent and hard-working and successful. Even if those statements feel like a lie, they will start to work on your brain, gradually helping to transform you into someone who is more accomplished.

The only obstacle to finishing what you start is you. Your fears. Your anxieties. Your inability to plan. Don’t let these issues hold you back. Decide you’re going to be a finisher.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.